Duo has Bears' hopes running high

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- The stands are full at training camp on a blazingly hot August afternoon.

Only a masochist or a tanorexic would watch football practice in this weather. But here they are baking in the late afternoon sun on a Tuesday, eager to watch 7-on-7 drills and the occasional Jay Cutler angry throw at a nearby tent.

It's a mélange of fans. A guy in a Lance Briggs jersey stands with a woman with neck tattoos. Little kids, retirees, students and plain ol' sun-crisped diehards mull about as the temperature gets into the second level of the 90s.

As an organization, the Bears' reputation stays strong because of the fan loyalty on display at Olivet Nazarene University.

Chicagoans might split their loyalties between the Cubs and the Sox, the Blackhawks and the Bulls, but the Bears are still the city's team. They sell out every game, even though the cheapest ticket at Soldier Field is almost $70 and
the whole experience of going to Soldier Field (parking, food, drinks, etc.) can conservatively run a family of four $500.

But the beer still flows like wine on Sunday afternoons, and nearly everyone is bedecked in some kind of jersey or T-shirt or visor or winter coat. For a while last year, Cutler had one of the best-selling jerseys in the league.

Marketing the Bears to fans isn't tough. But on the field, the team lacked substance last season. It promised one thing but didn't deliver. It was inauthentic and one reason coach Lovie Smith and his staff find themselves in a win-now situation.

The Bears are mostly known for stout defense and a straight line history of middle linebackers. But on offense a grinding running game is their calling card, a testament to the history and culture of Midwestern football, along with the fact that the Bears have started a conga line of mediocre quarterbacks in the past five or so decades.

Smith, the old football soul that he is, had affixed his identity and that of his team to the old coaching saw: We get off the bus running the ball.

That aphorism has come back to bite him the last three seasons, as the Bears have stumbled off the bus, and more often than not, tripped on the last step and face-planted into the sidewalk. Since 2007, the team has annually ranked in the bottom quartile statistically in rushing. It's been a problem of talent and depth.

Last year they had a pathetic six rushing touchdowns. In 2008, then-rookie Matt Forte had eight of the team's 15 touchdowns, which was middle of the pack statistically. In 2007, Chicago had eight rushing scores.

This season, the Bears are hoping for a reversal of fortune, as Forte and Chester Taylor team up to give new coordinator Mike Martz a pair of versatile backs who can run and catch.

With the rare addition of an elite-level quarterback in Cutler, it was expected the team would open up Ron Turner's offense a bit, and rushing attempts might go down. As it turned out, the Bears found themselves throwing out of necessity too, as they were consistently playing catch-up during the rocky 7-9 season. Cutler was less than reliable, dealing with his own poor performance, outsized expectations, a young receiving corps and an offensive coordinator on his way out. An injury-riddled defense didn't help nor did a porous offensive line that struggled for much of the season. The Bears couldn't run or pass reliably. Their identity was in disarray.

Forte, now 24, endured a sophomore slump. The Tulane product had 929 yards rushing, a 3.6 yards per carry, four touchdowns and five fumbles. He caught 57 passes for 471 yards, but had no receiving touchdowns.

After the final game of the season, a less-than thrilling win over the Detroit Lions after New Year's, he came clean. The hamstring he injured in training camp and his Week 3 MCL sprain never healed. He was running on bad wheels.

Time healed Forte's wounds.

"I'm actually healthy this year," Forte said. "Last year I came into camp injured, so that kind of hampered me. I came into the season injured, and I finished it injured."

While I'm loath to proclaim a football player's readiness after watching a dozen snaps at practice, I can say without a doubt that Forte had some spring in his step Tuesday. He was busting through the line and cruising through the second level. It's tough to express how difficult that really is, when a guy like Forte can make it look effortless. As Smith said, "we have some scholarship guys on the other side of the ball too."

Forte's injuries weren't significant enough for the Bears to hold him out, especially after Kevin Jones went down in the preseason. So Forte gutted it out, took all the criticism and went about his business, never letting on how hurt he really was.

"Matt's a particularly stable person," running backs coach Tim Spencer said. "He kept his mouth quiet. He tried to work through things, but I'm sure he didn't particularly like it. He knew he wasn't 100 percent. We knew that. I'm sure it was frustrating. It was one thing after another. Once he'd get something to a point where he thought it was good, then something else would happen. So he was starting the process all over again."

With Forte hobbled and the offensive line a work in progress, especially with Orlando Pace getting worked on the left side, the Bears' red zone offense was a disaster. Forte carried the ball 19 times inside the 5-yard line and scored two touchdowns. Football Outsiders noted that he should have scored nearly eight times.

"It was very frustrating," Forte said. "Obviously, we didn't do something right, because I didn't get in the end zone."

While the Bears are employing the same linemen, if not all in the same spots, Martz's offensive schemes will surely result in better numbers across the board. So spending too much time discussing the failures of the past isn't just negative thinking, it's also kind of pointless. Football Outsiders, in its annual preview, also noted that poor red zone scoring doesn't consistently carry over from one season to the next.

"Last year, we can learn from it," Spencer said. "But we have a different scheme now, and some of the things we did last year, we'll do differently."

After getting caught short last year, the Bears guaranteed Taylor $7 million to flee Minnesota this season.

Taylor had a breakout year in 2006 for the Vikings but for the past three seasons found himself as a solid complement to Adrian Peterson. Despite a down year in Minnesota for the running game -- he and Peterson had career-low yards-per-carry averages -- Taylor found himself a valued commodity. He was "on the street" for no time at all before Jerry Angelo snatched him up. His 89 catches over the past two seasons bode well for Martz's scheme.

"Chester would make me mad watching him opposite us," Spencer said. "When you'd play his team, there would really be no falloff when he came in. You'd think, 'Maybe we can stop this guy, and he's getting first downs and making plays. He can catch the football, he's a nice inside runner with a little burst. The thing I like about him is that he's a smart football player, and he'll block. Both of our guys are good blockers."

"I felt like I had an idea of what he was like as a player, and he hasn't disappointed," Smith said. "He's a good complement to Matt, a good tough, tough runner, inside and outside."

Spencer played under Don Coryell in San Diego, and he knows the ins and outs of Martz's offense. There will be plenty of opportunities for both backs to contribute, and enough wrinkles -- different formations, motions, etc. -- to keep defenses guessing.

"Everybody thinks when Coach Martz came in that we're just going to put it up in the air," Spencer said. "I played in this offense in San Diego. We had guys that ran the ball. It's a misnomer that we're just going to be throwing the ball around."

Of course, the running back most people associate with this style of offense isn't Spencer, who scored 10 of his 19 career touchdowns as a 25-year-old rookie in 1985 in Coryell's waning years. It's Marshall Faulk, who was one of the most electrifying players in the league in Martz's "Greatest Show on Turf." Faulk utilized his pass-catching ability to make up for any lack of carries. In 1999, Faulk had 253 carries and 1,381 rushing yards, and 87 catches for 1,048 yards.

"I know Martz uses the running back more in the passing game, and that's one of my specialties," said Taylor, who only got 94 carries last season, his lowest total since 2003.

Taylor and Forte seem to be friendly, so this isn't a Cedric Benson-Thomas Jones situation, which is good and bad. While their feud divided the locker room, not evenly as seemingly everyone liked Jones, but it certainly didn't hurt the Bears' season in 2005-06.

While he was paid good money to leave Minnesota in what could be his last big-money deal, the 30-year-old Taylor knows he needs to share the wealth with Forte.

"It's a long season," he said. "We've got 16 games and the playoffs, we need that. Running backs go down every now and then, so we need depth."

Spencer said the pair's professional demeanor is a coach's dream. He has two guys trying to play, not to mention a few others behind them in Garrett Wolfe, Kahlil Bell and Harvey Unga.

"Of course, we're not here not to push each other," Forte said. "Competition breeds success, so we're both trying to make each other better."

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.